Image is everything, they say. But can the same image mean completely different things for two people?
On Thursday at the Monte Carlo Masters, Rafael Nadal and Alexander Zverev both played their third-round matches and they both projected a similar image on the court – in that they were barely visible on it. Nadal, as his wont, spent much of his time planted metres behind the baseline and hitting viciously spinning groundstrokes that handcuffed Grigor Dimitrov. And Zverev did much of the same against Fabio Fognini, especially in the second set, except that there was nothing vicious or handcuffing about his tennis.
When you look at the 6'1" Nadal playing from that far back and getting everything back in play, you get why he is such an irresistible force on clay. That style of play makes perfect sense considering his body type and physical strengths – the work that he puts on the ball by taking full-blooded cuts from way back is his bread and butter and his muscular topspin ensures his shots land deep and bounce with venom.
But when the 6'6" Zverev spends all of his time retrieving from the back of the court, it doesn't make any sense at all.
Zverev's lean and tall frame means his strengths are exactly the opposite of Nadal's. He may not be able to generate vicious topspin, but when he steps inside the court and hits down on the ball, he can generate flat power that should be able to penetrate any court. So why then does he abandon his biggest strengths so often?
A loss to Fognini on clay shouldn't be a matter of shame for anyone. The Italian knows how to play on the surface and has in fact defeated Nadal himself a couple of times on it. It is a shame, however, when a physically imposing player like Zverev blunts his own weapons by adopting a defensive approach and gets breadsticked without so much as a hint of resistance.
This setback is just the latest in a series of worrying results for Zverev dating back to the start of 2019. He has failed to make the quarter-finals in five of the six tournaments he has played this year and has been less than fully competitive in almost every single loss. Zverev is the World No 3, the reigning ATP Finals champion and winner of three Masters 1000 titles at the age of 21 (he celebrates his 22nd birthday on Saturday), but he hasn't remotely looked like any of those things for about six months now.
The fact that he hasn't yet turned 22 is significant because it shows just how unique a position he is in. No other player of his age group has come anywhere close to racking up the list of achievements that Zverev has, which automatically makes the German the leading light of his generation. But is that doing more harm than good, by putting too heavy a burden of expectations on his shoulders?
Zverev has never been shy of expressing his lofty career ambitions and seems as convinced as the tennis world at large that he is destined for great things. But when you achieve a lot at a young age, it is natural to wonder how exactly you're going to maintain your own pace and standard.
In many of Zverev's recent matches, he has played 'scared'. Everyone expects him to win all the time (at least in non-Slam matches) now, especially after his career-defining ATP Finals win. So whenever he steps on the court, he has something to lose. That is showing in his performances; the loose, free-flowing tennis that he produced to win the Madrid Masters last year is all but gone, replaced by a tentative, crab-like approach that seeks to prolong points rather than end them.
It may be an exaggeration to say that Zverev plays like that all the time. When pitted against high-ranked opponents or at the very beginning of any match, he does look to step into the court and hit his groundstrokes with authority instead of fear. The trouble usually starts when he is put under pressure; at the slightest indication that he is in danger of losing a match he shouldn't be losing, he retreats into his shell.
In the first set against Fognini, Zverev was close to his aggressive self from the ATP Finals. The one horrible game he played, when he got broken at 2-2, was littered with ugly unforced errors rather than non-committal pokes. From Zverev's perspective, that is a 'good' way to lose a game.
But what happened after that hard-fought first set is exactly what has had everyone gnashing their teeth in frustration over the past six months. Faced with a deficit, Zverev was in danger of losing a match to a lower-ranked opponent; in other words, he was in danger of losing a match he shouldn't have been losing. And that seemingly took away all of his aggressive intent, turning him from an imposing hard-hitter into an unthreatening squatter.
When you watch Zverev giving up the fight in such dispiriting fashion, hitting his groundstrokes with very little purpose and looking completely out of ideas and inspiration, you wonder how he ever won three Masters titles. But amid all that listlessness, he wins an occasional point by scampering all over the court and turning defence into an art form and it hits you: he is a player with almost too many gifts, except the one that would tell him how to use them all together.
There's almost nothing that Zverev can't do on the court. He's got the massive serve, the game-changing backhand, the flat power of someone who is 6'6" and the electric foot speed of someone much shorter than 6'6". Now put yourself in his shoes for a moment. If you were a 21-year-old with the entire world's expectations on your shoulders and had all these weapons at your disposal to choose from, would you be more tempted to choose the risky flat groundstrokes or the 'safe' defensive foot speed?
Zverev's tendency to adopt a safety-first approach when put under pressure is understandable, especially for someone so young. But unfortunately for his ambitious self, it is not a trait that has characterized the greatest champions of the sport — or even a regular champion of the sport, as his recent sorry results show.
In a way, it is probably a good thing that Zverev is losing so many matches lately. He has a huge amount of points to defend in the claycourt season and if he suffers any more early losses over the next couple of months, his ranking is bound to take a tumble. That would lower the expectations a tad and also help him focus on making the changes that his game is crying out for.
It sounds silly to suggest a World No 3 needs an overhaul of his game. But by all accounts, there is something fundamentally wrong in the way Zverev approaches his early round matches – at both the Slams and the smaller tournaments. A fresh perspective, predicated on being aggressive from one match to the next rather than fulfilling some exalted destiny, could be just what his coach Ivan Lendl needs to instil in him.
Zverev may still be headed for great things; 22 is hardly the age for career obituaries. But at the moment, image really is everything for him. And he needs to get rid of the defensive, acres-behind-the-baseline image as soon as he possibly can.
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Updated Date: Apr 19, 2019 15:54:50 IST